The future is accelerating

More evidence, this time spotted by Charlie Stross in the Economist, of the future arriving every more quickly.  Charlie writes science fiction, so needs a good store of plausible futures which haven’t quite arrived yet:

Say you want to set a story 30 years out, and as part of your world-building exercise you want to work out what technologies will be in widespread use by the time of the story. Back in 1900 to 1950 you could do so with a fair degree of accuracy; pick a couple of embryonic technologies and assume they’ll be widespread (automobiles, aircraft, television): maybe throw in a couple of wildcards for good measure (wrist-watch telephones), and you’re there. But today, that 30-year window is inaccessible. Even a 15-year horizon is pushing it. Something new could come along tomorrow and overrun the entire developed world before 2023.

The evidence from the Economist prompting this thought is in the chart.  It’s not quite as immediately to Charlie’s point as it first appears, since it is measuring the spread of technologies across countries, rather than populations. You could argue that it is because each earlier line has happened that each later line can happen more quickly – but the causation isn’t really the point here.  More pertinently, as one of the commenters on Charlie’s post observes, it illustrates William Gibson’s famous line, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

It hadn’t previously occurred to me that science fiction writers and governments face so much of a shared challenge.  Much of what governments do tacitly assumes that the world isn’t changing very quickly and that, in consequence, what they do doesn’t have to change very quickly either.  Cycle times in what, in other contexts, would be called new product development or responding to changing market conditions can appear to stretch out interminably.

That may not particularly matter in a world where stability is the norm, but that’s not the world we live in.  It probably never was, but it was possible to think it so without the state of cognitive dissonance becoming unmanageable.  Now it is much harder to sustain that illusion (which doesn’t stop many from trying). 

But if you can’t assume that the future will stay the same, you can’t assume that it will be different either – at least in ways which are wholly predictable.  Paleo-Future is a wonderful guide to the futures of the past – “a look into the future that never was” – and show pretty conclusively just how wrong people can be about what they expect to happen in the relatively near future.

All is not lost though.  As Jerry Fishenden has recently reminded us, the technology for the next decade has already been invented.  The bit we don’t know is how it will be used and who will use it – the social consequences (not just use) of technology are much harder to predict.  Harder is not impossible, though.  We need to go out and look, and having looked be ready to see.